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Review: Sweet Mother at Royal Court Studio ***1/2

March 14, 2020

There’s a distinct dynamic, and a power, to verbatim theatre; it has an inherent sense of truth and authenticity about it that other dramas seek to capture.

Sweet Mother, being staged in two sold out nights at the Royal Court Studio, is an extension of an oral history project embedded in Liverpool 8 and which is capturing and giving voice to a community which has hitherto been, if not voiceless, then certainly unheard.

The production, which its director hope to develop for a wider tour in 2021, gives a glimpse in to the lives of white women who married into Liverpool’s Black community; their experiences of racism both inside and outside their families, along with the joys and heartache of everyday life.

Set in the summer of 1981, the play is also embedded in the immediate aftermath of the Toxteth Riots, designer Graeme Phillips’ sitting room set flanked by home-made banners and placards calling out both racism and the then Merseyside Police chief Kenneth Oxford.

The verbatim interviews have been wound into a narrative arc that takes its audience from chance meetings to burgeoning relationships to raised families via reminiscences about music hotspots, Burtonwood and the dangerous, simmering tensions between community and police that exploded into brutal violence in July 1981.

The cast of three – Margaret Connell (Vera), Amanda George-Higgins (Josie) and Lisa McMahon (Joan) – bring three-dimensional life to these captured voices, supplemented by video and oral footage of the project’s participants including the late Marie Chicken.

And the actresses create a palpable sense of warmth and camaraderie which binds together the women who come from quite different generations but who share many of the same experiences.

The Royal Court Studio’s compact space means that camaraderie is shared with and also between the audience, some of whom on the first night clearly came from the heart of the community – both geographical and social - being represented on stage.

Given its compact setting however it’s slightly frustrating that some of the voices, both those on audio and the spoken dialogue, are indistinct or incoherent at times.

While it’s early days for Sweet Mother, it clearly has potential to reach – and speak to - a much wider audience.

And while it’s still evidently a work-in-progress, its creators at Nwoko Arts should be wary of producing a finished product that’s too slick and that risks taking away some of the punch from these women’s powerful testimony.

 

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